How Being in Nature Provided Healing For Me After a Summer of Racial Trauma

Safiya Osei
Safiya Osei

At the beginning of 2020, I was living my best life on a study-abroad trip to Ghana. I felt so much joy being surrounded by so many queer Black people on my program while in my father's country, but after four months away, I was forced to return home due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And just two weeks after my return, George Floyd was murdered.

News of his death was everywhere, but I refused to watch the video and found myself unfollowing everyone who reposted it because I couldn't stand to watch another Black person die at the hands of state-sanctioned violence. Around that same time, the story of Breonna Taylor's March 2020 death was also resurfacing and people were finally making it a point to highlight the very real and unique violence Black women face in this country. As I took in more and more information and watched my peers repost various resources on their Instagram stories, I was compelled to use my voice in the only ways I felt I could: I wrote an open letter to my institution's board of trustees, I went to protests in Washington DC, and I got into fights with ignorant people online. My anger fueled me and it knew no bounds.

Being outside in the fresh air made me realize that while I should acknowledge what was happening to my people and all oppressed people in the world, I also couldn't stop living.

I couldn't sleep because I was constantly imagining the same thing happening to my younger brothers — two unassuming kids that could also be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I thought about my desire to never be silenced and to speak my mind about those in power and the centuries of harm they've caused my people, Indigenous people, and oppressed people all over the world. As I curled up tighter and tighter in my bed, sometimes crying, sometimes fuming, and oftentimes tweeting and reposting sources, I could feel my body literally being compacted by the trauma of living the Black experience in the heart of the US empire.

As the summer went on, the pain in my lower back and neck from sitting in bed and scrolling became unbearable, and the dark hole of despair and anger I sat in was getting to a depth I wasn't sure I would be able to escape from. Slowly, I began to form a routine in order to give my mind anything else to focus on. It started with watering the plants in my house, making sure each one was taken care of and getting the nutrients it needed to survive. Having something else to take care of brought order back into my life and forced me to get out of my room and move.

Taking care of our indoor plants quickly turned into making sure the veggies, herbs, and plants in our backyard garden were also getting the water and care they needed. Summer in the mid-Atlantic region was unbearably hot in 2020, and since no one else in my household was regularly paying attention to the greenery inside and outside, I made it my job to ensure that I watered and cared for as many plants as I could.

Being at home during that time was really hard, but nurturing other living things gave me a new sense of purpose and brought me out of the despair I was stuck in, even if it was just for the hour it took to water the plants. Eventually, watering the plants turned into sitting outside in the front yard reading books and soaking up as much sun as I could. In Ghana, my skin was saturated with vitamin D and my complexion was the darkest it had ever been. I reveled in getting my summer color back after a month indoors and could physically feel my mood improve after a few seconds in the sun.

Being outside in the fresh air made me realize that while I should acknowledge what was happening to my people and all oppressed people in the world, I also couldn't stop living. Dwelling in my hatred in the darkness wasn't helping anyone, least of all myself. I knew I had to find my joy again, and being outside in nature was the first step in rediscovering that joy. I had to take a deep breath and connect to the Earth, and once I opened my heart to her, she responded tenderly. I found myself increasingly drawn to the sky, taking many photos of it at different times of day in various locations, searching for the perfect sunset or patch of clouds, and often finding peace in that. It was those small actions that added up to big healing over time.

Going on nature walks, sitting on beaches, crossing paths with deer, catching fireflies in my yard, and talking to the plants in my garden lifted me higher than I ever could have imagined. To be honest, writing these words brings tears to my eyes as I think back to how sad I really was this summer. Sometimes I can't believe I survived it at all. But when I look at all the nature that surrounds me, I remember who I am and continue to search for the person I'm becoming while trying to listen to those who came before me. What's happening in the world isn't new, but that doesn't mean our bodies remembering and responding to the trauma of anti-Blackness and white supremacy is invalid. It's OK to let the emotions of this moment wash over us. With our tears, we can water endless gardens and be proud of the love that can grow out of our pain.